Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Mar 15 2021

Feeling a way

Been in and out of various moods lately. Who hasn’t? It’s 2021, the world has changed, is still changing. Nobody knows where things will end up. Reassessing priorities has been the name of the game.

We here in Taiwan, of course, have been fortunate to be living under responsible governance, which makes for conflicting emotions when we see the vaccines we don’t have access to being so widely spread in countries where people felt free to ignore competent advice. They need it more, obviously. But remember, please, why they need it more.

Last weekend revolved around a St. Patrick’s Day gig at Bobwundaye. I don’t particularly care about St. Patrick’s Day, but we hadn’t played at Bob’s in a minute, so it was a long-overdue show. Cristina is getting ready to have Baby Paradise, so it was her last show before the big event. I saw some familiar faces, which was nice and got me back into a more social mood than I’ve been in lately. The show went well, and I shared a late-night/early morning taxi with Slim back to Xindian afterwards.

Sunday was spent recovering. In the morning I chatted with some folks in VR, meeting a fellow from Maitland, Florida, where I grew up, reminiscing about various landmarks. Later I walked down to the area just downstream from the Bitan traffic bridge, where they’re revamping the catchment infrastructure to allow fish to traverse it. I talked with some of people fishing in the river there for a bit before returning to the Water Curtain Cave for a dinner of questionable pasta leftover from my pandemic-induced shopping spree last year. Verdict: Ew.

I’ve been getting on Clubhouse chats lately…it’s a kind of mixture of talk radio, podcasts and chatrooms, with moderated talks where listeners can participate. It’s Apple-product only so far, which has added to its aura of exclusivity for some reason. Rammy, ABC and I founded a Street Photography club on there, and have had a few interesting sessions so far. Quite a few other SP clubs have cropped up, some of which do discussions almost on the daily, but we’ve elected for a quality-over-quantity approach. Still, who knows how this thing will develop.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve also been working, slowly, on a photography book. My floor and walls remain covered in prints, but the work is now largely a matter of presentation. Of course it changes every time I get new advice, but slowly it seems to be taking form. It’s difficult as I am so close to the subject matter and the photos, and objectivity is hard to find sometimes. Also time is more of an issue these days as the semester has started up again. Again with the violin, although I feel I’m stuck at my current level, most likely as I am loathe to practice.

Been feeling stuck in many areas recently. Last week after work I took train out to Keelung to walk around and say good-bye to the old pedestrian overpass by the harbor. Usually walking around with no particular agenda helps me get out of my head and reconnect with the world around me, but it was rough going for some reason. I walked over to where the Taima Ferry docks, and while I was walking away the ship entered the harbor and docked. It was something I would have liked to see, but I missed it. Then, after I walked back over to see the ship and was walking away again, it departed…another thing I would have liked to see and missed. It felt like a metaphor for life lately. I keep missing things. Perhaps it’s time for a reset.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:05 pm  
Oct 07 2020

A strange trip

It was a strange trip, this last one in Taitung. I’ve been feeling disconnected lately, and was hoping some time away from the Big Smoke (as nobody calls Taipei) would hook me up again.

Of course it was good to get on a train, especially one headed south through tunnels towards the cliffs of the east coast. The Pacific had just come into view when I learned that Trump had been infected with COVID19. The rest of the trip was spent talking with Slim and looking out the window at the ocean, wondering where we’re all headed.

In Taitung, we took cabs over to the Tiehua Village, dogs roaming around, familiar faces among the staff. The others disappeared; I consumed some fried chicken in the upper window of a nearby KFC as the sun set and the lanterns came out.

The gig was fine. We signed a bunch of CDs. It was a nice crowd, and it’s always nice to have trees growing through the stage. I saw my friend Josh there, along with his girlfriend. He was making a tour of the east coast, and was heading to Orchid Island afterward. The staff were the consummate professionals. A chalk drawing of one of our albums graced a metal plate thick enough to stop a bullet.

Then it was over, and everyone left, everyone else in Thumper’s minivan, while David and I called a white plate “taxi”. The driver, of the Paiwan tribe, felt that the monstrosity on the beach should at least open and give local people jobs. I guess that makes sense. Better than simply falling into more ruins, which helps no one.

We arrived in Dulan and put our things at the hostel, aka the fish and chips place. The local 7-Eleven was our meeting place, and the Mayor of Dulan, a fat orange-and-white cat the locals call “Little Tumor” presided over the proceedings.

I messaged my old classmate DJ, who is a person of interest in that community, on Saturday. Our soundcheck at the performance space up the coast happened at noon, and we spent the whole day there before playing that night, following some of the indigenous greats such as Kimbo. DJ was getting a tattoo on the floor of the culture space, the artist wielding a small hammer. The show went fine. People danced. The locals and the foreigners all seemed okay with what we were doing. The moon stayed away, however, though Mars made a brief appearance through the clouds. I had brownies with caramel sauce, wrapped in leaves.

A bright Sunday morning brunch at Roen Misak with DJ after meeting him at the house of well-known indigenous singer Suming. He is staying there at the moment, and was on the phone talking about academics with, I presume, another academic when I climbed over the board at the door. Suming’s father sat in a tiny chair in the lovely old kitchen adjacent to the entrance space.

I always go to Roen Misak when I’m in Dulan, so the owner knew me. “You’re back! It’s been a while!” she said. Of course she knows DJ and chatted with him in Amis. I showed DJ one of my photobook dummies, and he got quite a chuckle from it, though that was not my intention. Still, I’ve known him long enough to realize that he is amused by the absurdities of observed dissonance, so I feel like I did get something across. More will be forthcoming.

After brunch (delicious seaweed sandwiches, ice coffee, and waffles with locally sourced mulberry sauce), we walked over to a shop DJ describes as his Amis classroom, introducing to the older woman who runs the store and her son Ah-hsiung, who was watching TV, and a couple of other older women. We drank some beer followed by some coconuts that Ah-hsiung chopped open for us. As we were talking various people would stop by, asking for this or that.

One of DJ’s friends was taking him up to the performance space to see the show that night, but he was leaving right away, and I’d wanted to have some fish and chips with the band before heading over. I should have taken the offer, for the band had disappeared. Instead I wandered around the town, up to the junior high school campus to look at the afternoon sunlight reflected on the trees lining the track. The dimpled mirror by the school that I’d enjoyed making selfies on had been replaced, alas.

It was late by the time the band reemerged, and we called Ah-hsiung to take us up the coast for the show on the final night of the music event. DJ was nowhere to be found, but I had another brownie and walked around the wide grass field and took pictures of the moon, which had deigned to grace us with its autumnal presence. Everyone had their phones out, the field dotted with artificial stars.

Monday dawned, and we were still in Dulan. The reason for this was that David was unable to purchase tickets back to Taipei until that night, so I missed work as well as a violin lesson. I was not upset about this. David and Conor had gone surfing. Thumper was river tracing. Cristina and Zach were camped out above the wind-thrown sandstorm that was the beach. I walked around town and over to the “water running uphill” attraction, which did pretty much what it says on the tin. Then down towards the beach, past the eerie former cemetery with its broken, empty tombs, looking for all the world as if it was ground zero for a zombie apocalypse, and the RV park, which is just as creepy but in a different way. As if all the zombies had one day just decided to change our their cramped concrete coffins for the more spacious RVs. The ocean was whipped up by the wind as I sat on the blanket with Cristina and played the Shostakovich duets Chenbl and I have been practicing recently.

The day had started out sunny and warm, but became cool and overcast as I returned to the hostel. I’d wanted to eat, and ducked into a coffee shop the hostel owners had recommended to ask about food, earning a look of dark annoyance by a white woman reading a book inside. I settled for some 7-eleven snacks, and while I was there I purchased a bright pink brush for the Mayor; she greatly appreciated the gift, as she apparently hadn’t been properly brushed in a long time.

A shower and a change into warmer clothes later, I returned to the 7 to wait for Ah-hsiung to come take us back to Taitung (Thumper was still river tracing and would drive back himself later). Ah-hsiung had already taken DJ to the station early that morning as DJ needs to work on maintaining his visa until his project is complete, and this apparently necessitates a great deal of red tape concerning several different government bodies.

Ah-hsiung arrived with another ride, and I patted the mayor on her head before getting in the car. Dulan is a strange place; I’ve always felt it was different, but this trip had a darker tone than prior ones. Part of this is no doubt due to the passing of our good friend Brian Kennedy, with whom we will always associate that place and time. The weather and my feeling of disconnection also contributed to my discombobulation, but there was something else, a readjustment that has been going on for some time, with the world, with me, with everything, that can only be perceived in relation to the ocean itself.

We stopped for pizza on the way at Pete’s Pizza, across from a bread shop and a blue school designed in a faux Arabic style. Pete himself serenaded us with music and regaled us with stories as we munched on the pies we’d ordered, but I wasn’t into it. To be honest, I hadn’t been hearing much of what the foreign residents had been saying during my time there (with the exception of DJ, who is neither foreign nor local but in his own space as usual). But the shop isn’t far from the coast; I could feel the ocean lurking on the other side of the buildings. It wasn’t saying anything, it just was.

I didn’t talk much on the train as it made its way up the night coast, though the tunnels along the steep cliffs above the dark sea, flashing past villages and through empty stations. I’d had enough, I think. In any case, it’s Double Ten in the Capital, with all the electronic light shows that implies.

 

posted by Poagao at 11:35 am  
Sep 07 2020

A gig in Hsinchu

This last Saturday we went down to Hsinchu for a gig. Our van driver was the ever-reliable Mr. Gao, with his hair arranged in a Japanese-style topknot, and traffic was mostly smooth. Cristina had pulled a muscle in her back and was on pain medication. The weather was fine, Hsinchu’s famous breeze kept things cool…fall came with the arrival of September this year, quite punctually. The air has lost its core heat, and suddenly breezes have an actual cooling effect. Being outside without instantly breaking into a sweat feels quite novel. Chenbl predicts that this means the winter will be especially cold. I don’t think anyone is looking forward to Winter 2020 and the threat of recurring virus waves; all we can do is keep our guard up and trust those in charge know what they’re doing. Which is more than a lot of countries seem able to do, unfortunately.

We arrived at Hsinchu Park on time and did our soundcheck, but they hadn’t arranged lunch, so I went across the street to get ice coffee and a cinnamon bun. Just after I’d ordered, David called and said the organizers had moved things up and we had to go back early.

Alas, I was not back early. Which turned out to be fine as we started on time anyway, but it did become a kind of theme for the day. We did a thing where we played while walking up to the stage, bringing back memories of marching band, and then we had three hours to kill before the main show.

The park was becoming crowded, with too few people wearing masks for my comfort, so I went for a walk around town, first over to the railroad tracks, taking photos of scooters and shadows in the underpass, then over to the train station, where the light on the platforms was exquisite. It was too bad that I couldn’t get on them. I mulled using my Easycard to get on the platforms and then just leaving, but I decided against it and kept walking, taking the tunnel under the tracks and back towards the park, passing the corpses of ancient trees by the rear entrance.

I skirted the park again, heading through nearby neighborhoods, happy to be just out and walking on my own for a bit, when I stumbled across a raised canal running through the apartment complexes. It must have been used for irrigation at one point, but now it was a pleasant little river, with hardly any odor. A man was taking pictures of an orange-and-white street cat while a few feet away a rather large pig snuffled through the hedges. I followed the canal towards a pleasant park filled with artificial wetland bogs, elderly people sitting around with caretakers, a dog and another street cat that had appropriated one of the benches. The canal continued into the back of Chiao Tung University’s Boai campus, but I couldn’t follow it much further as I had to get back. I passed through some older one-story house communities and brand-new buildings with wraparound balconies that would surely be closed off. Developers here seem to think Taiwanese people will love balconies and use them for enjoyment, but hardly anyone ever does. People like the idea of balconies, in that they see themselves as the type of people who would enjoy a balcony if they just had one, but that’s not the way it works out in practice. They most often end up enclosed and/or full of boxes and other detritus.

Showtime had been moved up, of course, so it’s good that I got back to the park early. The show went well, or at least I assume it did as the lights were so bright I couldn’t really see the audience. The Thai chicken boxed meals were delicious and the drive back smooth, but it had been a long day; when Mr. Gao dropped us off at Xindian Station nobody thought of hanging out by the river as we often do.

 

posted by Poagao at 11:41 am  
Aug 20 2019

East Coast journal ’19

The mood wasn’t quite as ebullient as usual when we met up at our usual spot at Taipei Main Station before heading to Taitung. For one thing, it was too hot to sit outside as we usually do; we instead huddled around one of the entrance hall pillars. All of the convenience stores were boarded up for some reason. It felt like moving day, even more so because of all the travelers with luggage passing through. But mainly it was because we all recalled the last time we’d gone to Taitung.

We made the train easily, though Conor was late and Thumper had to ride a lightning cab down the mountain to make it in time. I’d gotten some lunch at Mosburger and waited until the train emerged from the tunnel to reveal the somewhat distressed landscape of northeast Xinbei to partake of my meal, listening to Thumper describe his life as a hardcore bicycle enthusiast.

Our destination this time wasn’t Taitung but Yuli, where we were picked up by a couple of vehicles driven by organizers to take us to Chenggong where the show was. The guards at the venue originally insisted on guiding us to the parking lot before the sight of the huge orange tub confirmed that we were indeed one of the bands playing on the large grassy slope between the mountains and the sea. I originally thought that we should be playing facing the sea, as that would be the logical fengshui, but as dusk fell and the mountains glowed with clouds, their arrangement began to make sense. As we sat on the marble benches looking out at the sea waiting for our soundcheck, one of the staff tried to shoo us away until we told them we were playing. After such a long hiatus, perhaps we no longer look like a band. It’s been months, after all.

The show went without a hitch, though none of us could see the audience, me especially as I was wearing my usual sunglasses in the glare of the stage lights. We could hear them, though, and what we heard was encouraging. We told them they could dance, but when people tried to dance, the show videographers told them not to block their shots. Oh, well.

The moon rose up through layers of clouds out to sea behind the stage during the next band’s show, which was magical; the audience took out their mobile phones with lights on the screens, today’s version of lighters, I suppose, looking like artificial life had sprung up on the meadow. I wandered around, not really connected with anyone or anything. I tried to sit on the grass and watch the moon, but one of the staff told me it wasn’t allowed. So I went up to the sea waste recycling museum and took in the exhibits. Old flip-flops, nets, PET bottles made into art. And air conditioning.

After the last band, a heavy metal group, it was time to go to our hotel outside of Taitung, though Thumper and Conor decided to go stay with their Swiss friend Urs. Slim, Cristina and I hopped in our ride, which was a tricked-out Japanese car on low-profile wheels, dual sunroofs, an LED light system and a dope sound system whose sub-woofer rattled nearby windows. It was driven by a lithe, tattooed young man who disdained shirts. As we drove along the coastal highway, he mixed and matched and DJ’d, showering our ears with various hip-hop classics. He also took requests, and at various points we were singing along to Snoop Dogg, MC Hammer and even Green Day, rolling down the windows and sinking down in our seats as we proceeded to wake up everyone in the vicinity. When we stopped at a 7-eleven, David, who took another car, stuck his head out the window to stare at us. His ride was quiet and contemplative.

The hotel was out of the city, quiet at that hour. Slim played the piano in the lobby. “It wants to be played quietly,” he said, and then played it so loudly that the lone clerk told him to cut it out. David went to bed, while Cristina, Slim and I were joined by one of the organizers in lounge chairs on the front patio, where we chatted a little. I wasn’t drinking; I’d learned my lesson on the last trip. I was exhausted, though, and soon went up to sleep.

The next day, after the much-appreciated hotel breakfast, we piled in the van that the organizers had hired to take us back to Taipei. This was because they’d failed to procure train tickets back, which meant a long, long ride back up the coast. But first we drove up to Dulan, where David, Conor and Cristina wanted to go swimming. Thumper was out somewhere river tracing with Urs, and Slim settled down on the curb outside our friend Red Eye’s coconut hat stand/LP music factory. I’d been hankering for some coffee, so I walked through the town, eventually ending up at the same place I’d had coffee the last time we were in Dulan. I always like walking through that town.

The last time we were in Dulan, we’d been joined by my old newspaper comrade-in-arms Brian Kennedy. He’d been in fine form then, but not long after he was felled by a stroke and passed away. So a shadow lay over this trip. Even the table by the road where Brian, David and I had sat up talking and drinking had been cleared away, as if they knew what it meant to us and removed it to spare us that particular twist of recollection. But I also think this trip was a kind of way of dealing with the last one, perhaps even a private tribute of sorts. I’d like to think so, anyway.

We managed to set off north early in the afternoon. We wanted to break the long trip up, making plans to have a nice seafood dinner in Ilan, but I had my doubts and filled up on fish and chips before we left. Chenbl had been warning of thunderstorms and landslides on that treacherous route that has claimed many lives over the decades. A safer, smoother bypass route has been hamstrung by politics for years. But the trains and planes were booked, and no one wanted to drive to Kaohsiung to take the bullet train north, so the east coast road it was.

It wasn’t an unpleasant trip. With Thumper staying on in Taitung, it was just the five of us in the large, brand-new VW van. The driver, Mr. Wu, hailed from Ilan and obviously knew his business. We played songs on the portable speaker I’d brought. David and I talked about art, and the similarities between communicating with music and photography, the creative process, etc.

We stopped along the beach in front of the Hualian Air Force base. It was starting to rain. By the time night fell, we were threading the tall cliffs, the downpour lashing the top of the van, and quick glimpses of tiny fishing harbors far below us were the only indication of our height. Chenbl called periodically whenever there was a signal, wondering where we were. I watched the lights outside the rain-streaked window, and put on some old Japanese tunes. Somehow rainy nights call for old Japanese music.

Dinner in Ilan was not to be; the restaurant was closed by the time we made it that far up the coast, so we had some quick snacks at a roadside 7-Eleven before heading to the Xuesui Tunnel and Big Bad Taipei.

Mr. Wu dropped us off at TaiPower Building, and such was the mental space of that journey that I completely forgot my speaker as we piled into a cab that took us back to our respective abodes.

posted by Poagao at 12:32 pm  
Dec 03 2018

Dulan, etc.

I was watching the clock all Friday morning, as I had to set out for the train station at noon on the dot so that I wouldn’t be late for our Puyuma Express to Taitung. Fortunately I made it, but it seems that pre-trip trepidation is worse than it used to be.

We gathered in front of the station and spent a few minutes rebuffing the overtures of a lady selling gum before heading down to the train. The journey was lovely; the east coast is so picturesque; the three-hour trip passed quickly thanks to a window seat and conversation. Then it was taxis to the Railyard Village where we were playing. The area’s cool, artsy vibe has increased in the years since we played there last. Soundcheck was thorough and professional, and after a lone dinner at the standalone Mosburger, we took the stage and played a very tight, thrilling show. It was one of our better shows, if I may say myself. Everyone was listening to each other, playing off each other; it was tight and fast, just the way our music should be, and the audience at it up. Our old friend and my old co-worker Brian Kennedy showed up for the show, and we hung out afterwards.

As the night wore on, we piled into taxis out to Dulan, where Tim and Conor headed out camping, Slim and Cristina headed to one hostel, and David and I to another. The next morning I got up first and found some breakfast at a local place, and then wandered around the town for a bit. I followed the sound of loud music to the temple, in front of which an aborigine wedding was taking place. I took some photos and texted my old college roommate DJ, who is familiar with Dulan as he stays there when he’s in Taiwan. It turned out, no doubt to the surprise of no one, that DJ knew the happy couple as well as many other people there, and I talked to many of them, including Suming, the singer. It was a lovely, warm atmosphere, so much so that I had to leave at one point to get my bearings, have some coffee and walk around some more on my own, talking with some people I met.

By the time I returned, the party was over; a few people remained taking down the settings, but they soon piled into a truck and left. Suming sent me a message on Line that they were at the groom’s house, though he had to leave for another gig. I walked over the bridge and to the groom’s house, where the party was in full swing, with joyful, coordinated dancing that was so much more fulfilling to watch than the usual tourist dances that they always seem compelled to do.

But we had another show to play, so I walked back to the hostel and got my things to take to the Sugar Factory. It was kind of strange leaving the aboriginal wedding group and entering the backpacker/expat sphere that is another component of the town. We played a one-mic show and it was again a wonderful performance. I drank rather a lot of mead, and afterwards we talked into the night while sitting on benches by the highway, accompanied by a very nice cat.

Our train back to Taipei on Sunday wasn’t until evening, so after some nice pho with David, he and the others all headed out on various ventures, some went river tracing, others to the beach. Slim and Brian sat around the Sugar Factory talking with the two couples who sell coconuts and quiche, respectively. Unfortunately, some of the conversation brought back some of the BS that I’d wanted to escape recently, so I went for another walk around town. I walked to the junior high school, empty on Sunday except for a few students, and then up towards the mountains for a bit. Then I walked back down through town again, to the sea, where I watched the waves. A miniature expat drum circle provided unwelcome musical accompaniment to the waves, but the light was very pleasant.

Then it was back to the factory, where we’d gathered up to go back to Taitung, onto the train, and back to Taipei.

posted by Poagao at 11:36 am  
Oct 29 2018

Hong Kong ’18

I felt a certain sense of unease, almost antsy, in the days before we left for Hong Kong on Friday. There wasn’t much to pack; it was just a weekend jaunt, and all I needed was some clothes, my trumpet and cameras. Though our flight was scheduled to take off after noon, we met up at Xindian Station just after 8 a.m. I’d slept poorly, waking up every hour and only sleeping again with difficulty, but I somehow made it on time. I should have been able to relax at that point, but something still felt off.

We got to the airport in plenty of time, David and I having lunch at the Mos Burger upstairs after the quick and efficient customs and immigration. The others wandered off during the time before we met up at the gate for the Hong Kong Airlines flight, a brand-new Airbus A350 waiting at the gate. “Excuse me, could you let us by?” A middle-aged white woman said as she pushed past us on the way to the gate, where nobody had even begun to line up for boarding. It reminded me of those people pelting down the escalator at the subway station, risking life and limb so that they could be at the platform in order to wait eight minutes for the next train to arrive.

The flight was smooth; a couple of hours later we were taxiing into the gate at a new terminal at the airport in Hong Kong. Vast swaths of construction constituted a theme that would continue throughout the weekend. We caught a double-decker bus into town, alighting amid the familiar canyon of Nathan Road. It had been years since I’d been there. Hong Kong, with its rough edges and agrophilic tendencies, will always feel surreal to me; I’ve lived there in relative luxury and destitute squalor, as an overseas company employee and a stateless, homeless migrant; it always messes with my mind.

We made our way to our hostel, the Hop-Inn on Mody Road, dropping off our things and heading out again. The air was heavy with smog, the view across the harbor obscured as we walked along the promenade marveling at all of the massive construction sites and new buildings. We circled around the old clock tower and then headed back to the Chungking Mansions, where Slim thought he remembered a good Indian restaurant. Though the exterior has been renovated, the interior of the building retains most of its old character, and Slim’s memory didn’t let us down; we had an excellent and filling meal at The Delhi Club.

Then we all got on the MTR out to Diamond Hill, where we made our way to an interesting space in an industrial building that Gloomy Island festival organizers Tomii and Andrew have made into their creative space. They’d bought a plastic tub and stick that we needed to try out before the show the next day. The tub, made in China, wasn’t quite up to par, but the stick, while a bit too long, thick and heavy, turned out to work well enough after I sawed a few pieces off of it. Tomii, Andrew and the other residents of the space that night are all musicians, so we jammed and talked into the wee hours of the morning before catching cabs back to Tsim Sha Tsui.

Sandman and I were the first up on Saturday morning, most likely because we’d elected to go to bed after returning to the hostel the night before rather than going out again as some of the others had. As we were waiting to cross Nathan Road, I noticed a group of photographers on the mid-road pedestrian island, all with at least one and in some cases several cameras, shooting each other. I took a couple of shots of them, and they smiled. Apparently at least one of them recognized me and messaged me on Instagram later.

Sandy wanted to walk over to the Marks & Spencer to look at the food there, but it didn’t open til 10 a.m., so he accompanied me through Kowloon Park and over the skybridge to the Pacific Place towers where I stayed during my days with ESO, taking ferries to the interior of China to inspect shoes, me no doubt boring Sandy to tears as I went on and on about those days. I took another selfie at the same place I did back then, but I don’t know if they’ll match up. On the way back, we passed a guard outside an expensive shop holding a pump-action shotgun. Then, at M&S, I bought a sandwich and a yogurt, which I promptly dropped, covering the floor with a combination of blueberries and black current. This, you see, is why I hate backpacks. Every time I need to use them, I have to take off my camera, take off the bag, open it, use it and close it while holding my camera, put it back on, and then put my camera back on. Messenger bags are much better IMHO.

After returning to the hostel, everyone had different yet equally vague ideas of what they wanted to do that afternoon before the gig, so I set out alone, walking down to the clock tower and boarding the Star Ferry for Hong Kong island. It was splendid to be on that old vessel again, bobbing and weaving across that magnificent strait. There is a smell to Hong Kong harbor that is unique as far as I’m concerned. The Hong Kong side pier isn’t the one I knew, and feels crassly commercial, but I suppose they had to move it to deal with the more-or-less constant land reclamation that will most likely result in the crossing becoming a matter of stepping over a large puddle.

I walked through Central, various sights bringing back memories. Markets, crosswalks, buildings, etc. I entered Pacific Place across the same pedestrian bridge I did back in the days when that mall was my way to escape my rather desperate predicament, and took the escalators up to Hong Kong Park, which made me sad and nostalgic. None of the frolicking tourists or kids catching Pokemon could ever know about those days.

I continued walking towards Wan Chai, stopping at another large construction site to take photos, and down towards the harbor where another even-larger one greeted me as I walked over to the Wan Chai Star Ferry pier. Another lovely trip later I was back in TST, arriving back at the hostel in time to take a quick shower, get dressed, grab my trumpet, and head with the others over to Fortress Hill, where the Gloomy Island festival was taking place. We changed trains at Admiralty and arrived for our soundcheck before 5 p.m.

The festival venue deserves special mention, as the MoM Livehouse is located deep within an underground, apparently dead shopping center. A group of men were playing cards in the hallway, and empty shops sported rent signs. After soundcheck we chilled for a while on the hill opposite, and then Cristina and I tried and failed to find a good place to have dinner, only coming across several promising restaurants after we’d already spent too much on some mediocre egg shrimp and beef noodles. Alas.

Before the show, I walked down the road to Tin Hou, at the edge of the big sports park. It was where I stayed when I first arrived in Hong Kong to renounce my U.S. citizenship. I looked up at the building, imagining that tiny, windowless room a quarter of a century ago, and then a the scar on my hand from a piece of glass that had finally worked its way out when I was staying there (I’d cut it on a window during a typhoon in Taipei years before). I thought about selling my sci-fi books for food money, running in the park to get into shape, and watching newfangled “DVD” movies in storefront windows.

And then, 25 years later, I walked back up the road to play a gig at a jazz festival. It went pretty well. The other bands were very good, including both Tomii’s and Andrew’s bands, as well as an enthusiastic Filipino band. We were last, and wrapped everything up. I lingered and chatted with some of the other bands as the place emptied out, and soon it was past midnight and we were standing out in front of the empty center, behind an old building shrouded in bamboo scaffolding.

We caught the last train back to Kowloon, put our instruments and ties away, and rendezvoused back at the clock tower after picking up some hamburgers to munch on. There we sat and drank and chatted through the night. Silhouettes of ships floated across the twinkling lights of the city across the harbor. We talked about oceans, and people, and music. We’d done what we’d come to do. I had, anyway, and by that I mean to play music and visit a few ghosts.

The sky was glowing towards dawn when we left, ferries bringing workers over the waves before the Star Ferry began service again. On our way back, inexplicably, Slim decided to traverse an alley behind the Chungking Mansions.

I woke at 10:30 and started getting my things together. Something had changed over the weekend, over the night. I’m not entirely sure what that means yet. I had a big tasty breakfast at the coffee shop downstairs, eventually joined by Cristina, Sandy and David. One quick walk to the store later, we were once again trudging up Nathan Road, instruments in hand, to catch the bus back to the airport. After three days, I’d lost that frantic edge that had built up before the trip, but it had been replaced by something darker.

The mere aroma of the Popeyes meals everyone else bought at the airport made me regret not getting one myself. I don’t know what I was thinking, but the scraps they did toss my way were delicious. The late afternoon sun was throwing lovely golden beams through the airport lounge as we boarded the plane, but someone forgot to tell them that they needed a little truck to tow them out to the runway, so we waited around for an hour while they looked for one, possibly on EBay. I sat and watched the Han Solo movie, which I enjoyed for the most part, until we managed to finally get dragged out to the runway and take off.

Back in Taipei, the flight ended just before the movie did, so now I have to rent the damn thing to see the last five minutes. So I felt unresolved as I got off the plane, waited for the others to get their luggage, and met up at the food court downstairs, where we sat down to examine the Liberty Times article about us that had hit newsstands that day. We oohed and aahed over the full-page piece, noting a few mistakes, but generally happy that it happened.

Then, because none of us could face the long journey back to Xindian via the subway, we piled into a cab. It was dark outside the cab, but we knew what was out there.

I was the last in the cab, after Slim and then Cristina were dropped off at their respective domiciles. It was a quiet, empty drive across the bridge, as was the climb back to the Water Curtain Cave. Things have been revealed on this trip, some good things, some ugly things, but all real things. Maybe I will sleep well again, but maybe I won’t.

posted by Poagao at 9:10 pm  
Jul 05 2018

Not really back, but off again soon

Things never really got back to normal around here since I got back from San Francisco. They just kept being strange. Oh, I kept going to work and teaching classes and returning to the Water Curtain Cave at night, but the surreal feeling I’ve had ever since I got back never lost its edge. I’ve been delving into Wiki articles about Erik Satie and how he and Debussy used to hang out in Montmarte and at Le Chat Noir and what that world must have been like. Wiki articles tend to leave out moments and details like smells and feelings while walking down a street or crossing a bridge.

So when I found myself at Jiantan Station with nothing to do for two hours before a gig at the American Club last weekend, I figured I’d just wander in the general direction, hauling my instruments behind me. I walked along the former riverside before they changed the waterway’s course, wondering exactly where the exit to Chiang Kai-shek’s Emergency Fun Slide was. I really, really, didn’t want to enter the American Club earlier than I needed to, so I sat down in the armory park next door, the one dedicated to a couple of large guns that helped defend our outer islands against Chinese attacks in the late 50’s, and sat and thought and listened to the cicadas. But mostly I enjoyed not doing anything in particular, apart from scratching the occasional mosquito bite. Eventually I was joined by Slim, and then it was time to go do the deed.

The local staff inside the complex walls was being wrangled by a heavy blonde man with a German accent. There were lots of stands with the names of various foods and states and football teams or something. One stand, staffed by two people, emphasized the fact that Americans Can Vote Anywhere. It was very hot, and we shuttled between the very hot stage and the very cold ready room upstairs for most of the afternoon and into the evening for the Independence Day event. Every so often aircraft would pass over after taking off from Songshan Airport next door, and a vision flashed unbidden into my mind, of the local staff looking up at the military planes carrying the last of the U.S. staff off the island as the club lay abandoned due to a Chinese invasion and Politics As Usual. These thoughts thrust me into an even stranger state of mind. Unlike previous incantations, we were allowed access to all the stalls and people at the event, though it was sparsely attended. We played three long, lumpy sets, and everyone was hot and exhausted afterwards. I scored a couple of cupcakes as they were too sweet for the local staff and nobody else seemed to want cupcakes. Packing up amid the emptying complex, hauling our stuff down darkened halls and through empty gates, we took some cabs to Yuanshan Station, where some of the band was hanging out, but I was spooked and had to leave.

More surreality awaited me as I attended an event at Taipei Main Station, in the atrium no less, held by the publication for which I work, on tourism in Taiwan. Several bigwigs talked on the subject, including Premiere Lai, who was sitting once again a couple rows away. I talked with writer friend Joshua Samuel Brown and Stephanie Huffman, who were also there. Joshua mentioned something that had escaped my notice: The invitations had been sent out in English, many to foreign nationals, yet there were no English translations; the entire event took place in Chinese. It was a jarring disconnect from the messages being given lip service to at the event itself. Why, again, are we doing this? The location was selected “because everyone sets out from the train station” yet I wondered if these people knew that this exact spot was usually inhabited by Southeast Asian laborers on their day off.

My photography class’s last class was on Tuesday, and Chenbl and I worked hard to finish the accompanying photobook. These books have gotten better and thicker each semester, and this one is no exception. Some, if not most of my students have improved beyond recognition, and it’s a wonder to see them finding their individual styles and reveling in the practice of photography, a world they didn’t know existed before. We’ve become quite the big family over the years, and about a dozen of them are actually coming to Bangkok with us.

Bangkok? Oh yes, didn’t I say? Even though I’m still recovering from my trip to San Francisco, Chenbl and I are flying to Bangkok on Saturday to spend a week or so there. The reason for this is that, in addition to being a judge for the Bangkok Street Photography competition, I’m going to be teaching a workshop there with Rammy Narula and Barry Talis from Israel. Oddly enough, I’ve never been to Thailand before, only catching glimpses of it from across the river in Vientiane years ago when I visited Prince Roy there. People always exclaim in disbelief when I say I’ve never been to Thailand, which puzzles me, and, to be honest, is probably one of the reasons I’ve never gone, just because it was somehow expected of me, and things being expected of me nearly always pisses me off because it’s often because of the stupidest of reasons. But I’m happy to be proven wrong, and hopefully this will be one of those times.

So I’ve spent the last few days since the end of our class trying to rest up and recover and get my mind right. This has involved afternoon naps, copious amounts of tea, and watching every single A Tribe Called Quest video  – Rest in Power, Phife –  intermixed with early seasons of Star Trek: Voyager. Also Little Debbie Snack Cakes (“Zebra Cakes” for you Philistine kids who know not from whence you came). Am I showing my age yet? Today I had to go to the local government office to pay my housing tax, get my household registration for a gig we’re playing in Hong Kong this fall, as well as have some passport-sized photos made for said gig. Late-40’s passport photos usually tell a sobering tale, but I’m ok just being along for the ride so far.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 5:38 pm  
May 16 2018

Books, photography, albums, etc.

While it’s nice and all that my book Barbarian at the Gate: From the American Suburbs to the Taiwanese Army has been listed on Taiwaneseamerican.org’s 50 Books for Your Taiwanese American Library, their description of the book’s content is not quite accurate. But I suppose I’ll let any potential readers out there find that out for themselves. Coincidentally, also listed as well as shown in the lead image of the page is Francie Lin’s The Foreigner, which features one of my photographs as the cover art.

It’s hot and muggy out; everyone is waiting for the plum rains, but the weather just doesn’t seem interested this year. As the water flowing under the Bitan bridge assumes more of a coffee hue from the lack of rain, no doubt drought will be announced soon. I’ve been scanning old negatives at home while listening to podcasts, and am constantly amazed at how poorly the original photo labs printed these shots, cropping out significant portions of the photos and seemingly making exposure decisions at random. I’ve also been busy with my photography course, leading students around various part of northern Taiwan and covering material in the classroom, as well as planning for the upcoming BME street photography workshop in San Francisco that I’m teaching along with Andy Kochanowski. I’m looking forward to seeing the SF crowd again…if I make it into the country that is; I’ve successfully applied for the visa waiver program, but I’ve still got my fingers crossed that I’ll get a decent immigration officer. The Muddy Basin Ramblers’ third album is slowly coming to fruition; the two riverside listening tests we’ve held so far have been promising. Other members of the band have predicted that this one’s going to be big…we’ll see. I’m just enjoying the ride, and regardless of how well it’s received, I’m happy to have been part of it.

Riverside testing our new album.

The catchword for 2018 so far has been “surreal”…everything feels like a loaded plate balanced at the very edge of a table, and half of us just want to see it fall. The transition from winter to summer is usually the most volatile, atmospherically speaking. China has increased its efforts to erase Taiwan from everyone’s awareness, and for all of their crowing about democracy and freedom, businesses, governments and media all around the world seem perfectly happy to go along with the charade. For our part, our precious leadership here in Taiwan, which has become infamous for the many things it hasn’t done since it came to power, has decided that screwing up our air quality is no big deal as long as they don’t have to face any criticism from raising our laughably low utility prices. And the U.S. is…well, you know. Plate. Table. Shrug.

But hey, happy thoughts! I should remember that I have a great deal to be grateful for, many opportunities in the four+ decades I’ve been on this particular rock. I’m lucky enough to have a great place to live, a good employment situation, health and friends. So, as the great Joe Walsh once said, “I can’t complain (but sometimes I still do).”

posted by Poagao at 11:34 am  
Mar 26 2018

Another world

Saturday was the Calla Lily Festival in Taoyuan, and the Muddy Basin Ramblers were playing. Though the event wasn’t far from the high speed rail station, we took a van from the Xindian metro station, listening to tunes on the portable speaker I’d gotten in Vancouver along the way as the driver navigated the traffic both on and off the freeway.

The event went well enough, though there was no cover on the stage; the sun was strong and poor Redman was without sunscreen for the two 45-minute sets. The audience was enthusiastic and the kids were (IMHO) properly ignoring the red cordon around the stage and dancing to the music. After we got back to Xindian everyone split except Redman, Slim and I; we headed over to the river to hang out for a bit listening to the swooning sax music and reflect on the day before heading back to our respective abodes.

On Sunday, I took my photography students on a walk around Linkou. We met at Taipei Station and basically commandeered a bus as it was the first stop and we basically filled the vehicle. The trip out was smooth and fast, up the highway through the valley lined with metal-roofed factories and now impossibly high roadways, past the metro stop to the Zhulin Mountain Buddhist Temple, the next-to-last stop. I figured the wide-open courtyard in front of the temple, with a good flow of people coming and going, would be a good place to go over the basics with our new students, this being the first outside activity of the semester. A few mechanical problems such as buttons stopping working and batteries refusing to come out of cameras had me wondering if we should have informed the temple gods what we were up to beforehand, but thankfully nothing too serious (None of my students use film cameras, alas, even though I’ve suggested that it’s a viable option, and I would welcome such experimentation).

After we were done at the temple, we walked over to the touristy old street for some lunch (beef noodles), and as we were heading out again we bumped into Bin-hou, one of our classmates from violin class. He lives in the area, but it was a neat coincidence. He’s also studying trumpet, and is currently in possession of my old Arban’s book of exercises, which happens to include traditional Chinese text for some reason. When I first bought it around 1981, I had no idea why that was the case, but now I know.

We continued walking towards the highway, and an old, half-demolished rowhouse caught my eye, so I went over to have a look. Behind it we found an old tea farmer just finishing up work in the fields. He enjoyed the attention and took us on a tour of the remaining half of his old house, which was built in the 1930’s, and then invited us to his shop for tea. As it turns out, he’s 90 years old, and apparently lives alone with only a Filipina caregiver named Annie. The teas he served got cheaper and more delicious as we went, by design I’m sure, just to prove that expensive tea isn’t necessarily better. If you’re interested in dropping by for a chat and some excellent tea, the place is called Hongyuan Tea, near the corner of Zhongzheng and Jialin Roads in Linkou. Just look for the half of a house.

As we continued to walk, the older buildings were replaced more and more by huge, modern apartment complexes and vast, empty parks; fewer and fewer people were to be found on the streets despite the pleasant weather. We ended up in front of the Mitsui Outlet Park mall, and although class had officially ended hours earlier, most of the students were still hanging out with us. The afternoon was waning, though, so we officially disbanded, and Chenbl and I went over to the outlet mall to take a look.

The mall is basically a Western mall in virtually every respect, surrounded by huge apartment blocks fronted with floor-length glass windows and nary a rack of metal bars to be seen. Occasionally we would see an ROC flag hanging from a luxury balcony. “Foreigners, most likely,” Chenbl commented.

We went into full-on Mall Mode, looking through the shops where everything seemed to be at least 60% off (of highly inflated prices, no doubt); I even bought some baggy jeans as the jeans in every other store I’ve seen are skinny and I can’t stand skinny jeans. Dinner completed the Western Mall fantasy with an actual, genuine god-damned avocado burger that made me feel both intestinally and morally compromised. Half of the mall is exposed to the open air, and the roof is covered with grass; a musical group surrounded by kids was playing the courtyard, under a roof that is apparently meant to collect rainwater. Next to the mall is an enormous parking garage, because of course there is; there are also superfluous pools and fountains. It was all quite surreal.

Night had fallen by this point. Feeling depleted, we walked out the main gate, past the entrance fountains, and along the wide avenues lined with huge, gleaming apartment blocks adorned with art-deco LED trimmings that shot up into the night towards the airliners that flew over every few minutes. “Everything is so big,” Chenbl exclaimed.

“It’s like Banqiao,” I offered, but he shook his head. Banqiao is apparently child’s play compared to Linkou on Chenbl’s scale of Surreal Western Enclavities.

Maybe it was the avocado burger, but the surreal experience of the mall and just the feeling of just not being in Taiwan for a period of time made me look forward to getting on the metro home. As we waited on the elevated platform among the gleaming buildings, though, I couldn’t help but noticed a father yelling at his son while his daughter watched. The kid was playing on the ground, and the father made a sort of twirl, lifting his foot and actually catching, seemingly by accident, the kid’s head with his foot. The boy didn’t say anything, just looking up at his father, but I thought it odd. Then, just before the train arrived, the man lifted a foot and violently stomped on the boy’s toy car, prompting an outburst from his son that the father refused to acknowledge.

As I was looking over at the scene, Chenbl warned, “Don’t stare.” It did seem that the man probably had violent tendencies. I wondered if they lived in the area. What kind of life would that be? All I know is that, if that boy survives his childhood, that man will have a very lonely old age, provided he survives that long either.

A group of loud foreigners in shorts and baseball caps who had gotten on the train with us preceded us at the terminal station in Taipei, so we took our time walking to the MRT station. I was exhausted after two consecutive days full of events; all I wanted was some time in my comfy bed before facing another week of work and classes.

 

 

posted by Poagao at 12:06 pm  
Dec 11 2017

Not an easy weekend

Another crazy weekend with this year’s Tiger Mountain Ramble coinciding with cold, wet weather. I headed over to Bobwundaye on Friday night to reunite with our dear friend Steve Gardner for some serious jamming, and we made the acquaintance of another fine musician who came along for the gig: Jett Edwards, also a long-term American ex-pat in Tokyo. Jett plays a mean bass, and has seemingly endless energy in front of a crowd while being quite laid-back in person. Jett, Katrina and I were talking during a break about expats in general, and he mentioned that he’d encountered westerners in Japan who seemed to have “gone native” to the extent that they refused to speak English to him, only stammering confusedly in Japanese when he tried to talk to them. “Would these individuals happen to all be white dudes?” I asked him, and he gave me a knowing look.

“Of course,” he said, adding that in his experience, Black people don’t go native, at least not in that fashion. I was surprised to hear it; I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like that, and though I’ve gone through times when I avoided the company of westerners in general, particularly early on when I was studying Chinese, I’ve never gone to such extremes.

We played several sets, during which the thundering headache I’d had all day gradually subsided, but I felt a cold coming on, so I shared a cab with Cristina and Zach back to Xindian. I really should visit their new abode down there, it sounds very cool. Redman has apparently also secured a mountain lair…somewhere. I suppose he can’t be a very good spy if everyone knows where he lives. Oops, did I say “spy”? I meant “accountant”.

My cold was present and accounted for on Saturday, so I basically slept all day until it was time to head over to Tiger Mountain. I’d left in plenty of time to get there, but for some reason, after I exited Xiangshan Station, I could. not. find. a. cab. Several taxis drove by without stopping. One even stopped for a western couple standing not far away. I wondered if they too were heading to Tiger Mountain, and silently hoped they slipped in the mud and had costly dry-cleaning bills.

When I finally flagged down a cab, I told the driver about my difficulties. “Well, it’s no surprise,” he said, shrugging uncomfortably. “I mean, just look at you, dressed all in black, carrying a staff, standing on the corner there scowling at everyone…you looked like trouble. I wouldn’t blame anyone for electing to skip that fare for their own personal safety.” Well, at least he was honest; and I can’t find the lie.

The Tiger Mountain Ramble, which we’ve played every year since its inception, is always strange for me, centered around an abandoned temple into which some rather shifty local spirits have moved. It would be intimidating enough on its own, but fill it with hundreds of foreign devils, a technicolor stage truck, and several food stalls with rather expensive western foods, and it becomes surreal to say the least. The rain had stopped at least, though the ground will still muddy. I took some artsy mud shots with my phone. As one does.

Our show began after an excruciatingly long soundcheck. The sound people seemed to have little clue what was going on, and we eventually just said screw it, let’s start. Various instruments appeared and disappeared from the mix throughout the show, but the volume was painfully loud on stage. It’s a shame, because we all love playing gigs with our friends from Japan.

My ears and I all needed to rest after that, so I slipped out, luxuriating in the silence of the walk back down the mountain, though part of that silence was probably (hopefully) temporary deafness from the show.

As much as I wanted to rest on Sunday, I had to meet up with my photography students for class in the morning, followed by a trip out to Sanxia in the afternoon. We’d come up with a plan to take a bus from Ximen, and while that might have worked on paper, in practice it was rather trying. Though the light was nice, and there was a lot to shoot both on the bus and outside it along the way, the effort to remain standing on a crowded bus for over two hours as the driver stomped on his gas and brake pedals with the eagerness of a teenage Dance Dance Revolution aficionado was considerable. It was late afternoon by the time we staggered off the bus, and we headed over to the riverside for some peace. A small group of men were cooking under the bridge while another brought up some freshly caught fish for a meal.

We walked towards the main temple, which was packed with Pokemon-seeking zombies, providing a rather surreal foreground to the place, and then headed into the alleys. A few nice places have been built/renovated along the stream there, though a few pitiful remains of once-lovely structures remain. It’s a shame the owners lack the resources to fix them up; they could make a mint if they did so.

We took another bus on a thankfully much-shorter trip to the Shanjia train station, a station I recall from my army days as featuring a nice little stream running through it. The stream has largely covered by the new station, alas, but I did manage to get some photos, Nick Turpin-style, of passengers on the trains at the platform. Felt a little one-sided and fishbarrelesque.

I really would have appreciated a weekend to rest up from my weekend, but that’s just not the way things work, alas. I need to begin to work on our semester-end photobook, which means reviewing hundreds of shots from the past few months, and violin class again tonight has me thinking I probably should have practiced at some point during the week.

posted by Poagao at 12:15 pm  
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